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December 1, 2012
Vol. 70
No. 4

Principal Connection / On the Same Page?

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      How would your teachers respond if they were asked, "What does your principal think constitutes fine teaching?" They may know that you believe it's important for students to work to their potential and that you appreciate a strong performance on standardized tests. And they may know that you want order as students pass through the hallways. But do they know what you believe makes a good teacher? What about a really, really good teacher?
      Years ago at a conference, Grant Wiggins proclaimed that the best teachers in high schools were found in the physical education departments. When the crowd, filled with teachers from every discipline, protested, he explained his thinking. He said that P. E. teachers generally do a better job of showing students what they expected and the preferred way of performing: Here's how you swing a golf club; look at this video of a volleyball serve; watch how this gymnast maintains her balance.
      Wiggins talked about the importance of making the desired outcome clear to the learner so there is no question about what constitutes exemplary performance. In other disciplines, he observed, teachers have the image of the A+ paper in their minds, but the students aren't quite sure about the difference between the A+ and A papers, what is required to get a B, and so on.
      Wiggins talked about the value of, for example, a high school writing teacher displaying examples of students' essays from previous years, with names obscured but grades visible, so that students could see how an A paper differs from a B and a C paper. I'd go a step further and distribute a second set of previous papers without grades on them and ask students to speculate on the grades the papers received and why. The goal is to clarify the expectations, to help students understand what is desired and what needs to be in place for them to earn a particular grade. How much harder is it for students to meet expectations if they don't know what is valued?
      That same point applies to teachers and principals. Do our teachers know what we value? We give them feedback throughout the year and write summative evaluations each spring, but is that enough?
      We enter our buildings each morning with beliefs that transcend school policies and teacher evaluation criteria. Is it only the outcomes that matter, or do we give points for effort? Is there one way to accomplish a task (and is it our way?), or do we focus on the ends and give lots of leeway to the means? How much do we value students smiling at the beginning and end of the school day? Is student performance on standardized tests an important factor in determining teacher quality—or is it the only factor?
      Wise people can disagree on how to answer these questions, and good schools can embrace a range of approaches. It's a problem, however, if the principal and teachers hold different beliefs and no one knows it. In such situations, conflict is bound to result. Principals need to be explicit about what they value. It's too easy to hide behind platitudes, such as, "At our school, every child learns" or "Raising All Students to Their Potential" without talking about what these words mean.
      How can you share your beliefs with your faculty in an interactive way? Why not begin a faculty meeting by giving each teacher a sheet of paper on which they complete the following sentences:
      • Children learn best when…
      • A lesson is good when…
      • The most important quality in determining teacher effectiveness is…
      Then, unveil the easel or big screen on which you have already written your answers to these questions. In small groups of no more than six people—small enough so that everyone will participate and not just observe—ask the teachers to talk about the similarities or differences that they see between your and their responses. Were there surprises?
      An alternate approach is to use a faculty meeting to watch a video of a teacher (preferably some anonymous teacher from elsewhere) teaching. As the lesson proceeds, you and your teachers jot down comments about the positives you see, as well as suggestions you have for improvement. Afterward, begin by stating your thoughts about the lesson and seeing who else had the same perceptions, followed by teachers sharing what they saw that no one else noted.
      If significant disparities exist between the principal's and teachers' thinking on these issues, convene a committee to find common ground so that everyone can work to come together. If everyone is already on the same page, congratulations! Now you can form a group to talk about how to achieve these ideals.

      Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

      Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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